What Is Resting Heart Rate? Here’s Why It Matters, and How to Lower It
It used to be that everyone was counting steps, trying to get to 10,000, and comparing how many they took in a day. Now, there is a new measurement of fitness and health that is edging its way into our collective consciousness. It's called Resting Heart Rate, and since the newest generation of smartwatches is constantly taking our pulses and giving us feedback on what our current resting heart rate is, we might as well understand what that means, and why resting heart rate is important.
Essentially, resting heart rate is your report card on how healthy your heart is, as well as how clean and smooth the internal linings of your blood vessels are – since that's where the blood flows out from the heart to the rest of the body. Those two measures tell you just about everything you need to know about your healthy heart. But unlike in school where a higher number is an A in the case of resting heart rate, lower is better, to a point. A healthy resting heart rate is around 60 beats per minute. Anything in the 50s is considered athletic, and anything above 90 might be cause for concern. (More on why this is, later in the article.)
Why is Resting Heart Rate Getting Attention Now?
Resting heart rate is only going to become more popular in 2023, as more people find new smartwatches under the tree this holiday. Expect the questions: "What is a Resting Heart Rate?" and also "How Do You Lower Your Resting Heart Rate?" to become even more prolific in the topic of fitness and well-being in the months ahead.
Unlike many other measures of health that require a doctor's visit or a blood test, resting heart rate (or HRH) is a quick and easy way to gauge exactly how fit you are – and whether you are getting healthier and fitter or going the other direction. As you train for an event or attempt to get in shape or lose weight, your resting heart rate is the quickest barometer of progress.
According to Harvard doctors on the Harvard Health blog, if your resting heart rate spikes, either suddenly or for no apparent reason, it could be a sign of something potentially serious. So it's worth paying attention to. Your heart rate is an important feedback mechanism to let you know if everything is okay, or if you need to seek medical attention right away.
This article will answer:
- Why is resting heart rate so important?
- What does it mean to have a low number?
- What is the average resting heart rate for your age?
- Why do doctors want you to act fast if your heart rate spikes?
- What can you do to help lower your resting heart rate?
For starters, it is the most vital and important measurement of your overall fitness.
What is Resting Heart Rate?
Resting heart rate (RHR) is a measure of how many times your heart beats per minute to pump blood through your entire body. You want a low resting heart rate since that is an indication that your heart is strong, your blood vessels are wide open, as opposed to blocked, and your body is getting plenty of oxygen and energy to function optimally.
When your heart rate goes up during exercise, that is also healthy, since it shows you're working hard, doing "cardio" that helps strengthen the heart muscle and keep it young, healthy, and able to last.
How Do You Measure Resting Heart Rate?
You don't need a fancy fitness tracker or smartwatch, since you can just count your pulse, either at your wrist, the side of your neck, or laying your hand on your chest. (Wist or neck is easiest.) Lie down and breathe in a relaxed way, count your pulse for 30 seconds and double it. That is your resting heart rate.
In this situation, researchers define "resting" as lying relaxed on the couch (not agitated by a close World Cup soccer game), in bed in the morning, before you head to the kitchen to have coffee, or when you are breathing slowly and deliberately as you would in mindful meditation.
Slow breathing can even bring your blood pressure and heartbeat down a beat of two and is a useful exercise if you're stressed or your heart rate spike for any unknown reason. But if you are trying to get the best measure of your RHR, take it when you have not eaten anything or done any exercise in the past 3 to 4 hours. So the morning, before you get up, works best.
What is a Normal Resting Heart Rate?
Resting heart rate goes up with age and goes down as your fitness level improves. Generally, anything between 60 and 90 beats per minute is considered average. Below 60 is optimal, however, while above 90 is considered high. Talk to your doctor if yours seems high to you.
Can Your Resting Heart Rate Be too Low?
Generally, you want your resting heart rate to be close to 60, and in very fit people who exercise often, it can be lower and be perfectly healthy. Athletes can even have healthy hearts that are so strong they can be in the range of 50s or even 40s and be healthy.
Among older people, a resting heart rate that gets too low can fail to pump enough blood throughout the body, as the heart weakens with age and disease. The condition in which a heart rate is dangerously low is called Bradycardia, and it can occur when the heart ages.
If you feel lightheaded, especially upon getting up quickly, or have shortness of breath, it could be a sign that your heart is not delivering enough oxygen to the brain, lungs, or organs. In every care where you have cause for concern, contact your healthcare provider right away.
Why is Resting Heart Rate Important?
Think of the heart as the pump house in the engine room of a great ship. How much does this pump need to work to send out fuel through the machine? If you can be super efficient, then each beat of the heart is enough to send the blood through the lungs, up to the brain, down to your feet and toes, out to your fingers, and every single organ that you can name: Liver, kidneys, digestive tract, reproductive system, and all your muscles and tendons, ligaments, bones, skin, and eyes, etc. That's a lot of places.
The stronger the pump the better, and the stronger your heart is the better. You can strengthen your heart through cardio exercise and strength training, in combination. But the other part of the equation is how clear, smooth, and wide open your blood vessels are.
Two major factors can lead to a high resting heart rate. One, If you have blood vessels that are blocked, it can require the heart to beat more rapidly to move the blood through them. And second, if they are narrow, hardened or the lining of the blood cells is sticky, from heart disease. When this happens you may also have high blood pressure.
Calcium deposits or plaque can block blood flow. When blood flows out to the body parts, tiny blockages can act like stones in a river, requiring the blood to go over, through, and around them.
These blockages are created by calcium deposits or hardened plaque deposits that result from a high-fat diet of red meat, dairy and tropical oils. The opposite is also true: You can help keep blood vessels clear with a plant-based diet of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
When you eat saturated fat (from meat, dairy, and tropical oils) it increases your risk of high LDL cholesterol levels, which can eventually lead to blocked blood vessels.
The second factor is the quality of the lining of the blood vessels themselves. Every blood vessel is lined with endothelial cells, a coating layer that is meant to help the blood flow freely. The smoother the lining of the blood vessels, the easier it is for your heart to pump blood through the body.
How to Lower Resting Heart Rate
A strong heart from exercise and cardio workouts can make the whole system more efficient. So following a plant-based diet and getting daily exercise helps your heart get stronger, so each beat works more forcefully and you need fewer beats per minute to circulate blood through the body.
Why is lower better? An RHR of 50 means it only has to beat 50 times to do that same job. An athlete who trains and is young and healthy may measure an RHR of 40 or 45 beats per minute. The heart can rest between beats, meaning that the person is likely to live a long and healthy life, free of heart disease.
- Get more exercise. When you work out hard enough to elevate the heart rate and sweat, by biking, running, or swimming, for instance, you are strengthening the heart. A gentle movement like walking or stretching is likely to have less benefit when it comes to creating a strong heart. Strength training is also beneficial so long as you work out and exert yourself during the session. Boot camps are a great way to combine strength and cardio into one session.
- Don't smoke and limit alcohol consumption. Cigarette smoking weakens the heart and leads to heart disease. Don't start if you are a nonsmoker, and quit if you smoke. Excessive alcohol is not good for the heart. Moderate drinking is fine. According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate drinking is one drink per day for women and two for men. More than that can cause your heart to beat faster. Any stimulant such as drugs like cocaine is also terrible for your heart and can cause heart attack and stroke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Every 10 pounds of fat tissue requires 70 miles of blood vessels, so when you lose weight your body has to pump less blood through the entire system, making it more efficient. If you have extra weight on your body, your resting heart rate will likely be higher than if you maintain a healthy weight.
- Manage Stress Levels. When you stress your body sends cortisol and other stress hormones through the blood to signal to the heart it may have to start to beat faster, to "fight or flight" the danger. Even if the perceived danger is a work deadline or bills to pay this still happens in the body. Learn to breathe through the stress or manage your stress to signal to the brain and the heart: Everything is okay, and no need to beat so fast.
Foods to Lower your Resting Heart Rate
Dark green leafy vegetables, pigmented fruits and foods like beets all contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that fight stress on a cellular level and help your heart beat more efficiently. The body needs vitamins, minerals, potassium, magnesium, electrolytes, and a broad spectrum of nutrients from plant-based foods that will help it run better, which in turn helps your heart beat slower and easier at rest.
Eat a variety of fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, deep leafy greens, nuts, and seeds to have a lower resting heart rate, and stay away from animal products, especially red meat and full-fat dairy, both of which are high in saturated fat.
When Is a Resting Heart Rate Cause for Concern?
According to the Mayo Clinic, a rapid or irregular heartbeat may signal that you are experiencing a type of tachycardia called ventricular fibrillation, which can cause blood pressure to drop dramatically.
If you feel faint, lightheaded, or like you are about to pass out, have someone call dial 911 since this could be a sign of a heart attack or impending heart failure. Performing CPR on someone who is in A-fib is critical to help them get enough oxygen to the brain until help arrives.
A racing heart could be a symptom of an underlying disease, heart failure, or another potentially fatal event such as a heart attack or stroke, so call your doctor to let him or her know what you are experiencing.
Tachycardia can be caused by fever, alcohol use, excessive caffeine, high blood pressure, or an electrolyte imbalance (which can happen after running a long distance in the hot sun, for instance). It can also be triggered by certain medications, and hyperthyroidism, among other conditions. Smoking can trigger it, as can illicit drugs like cocaine or other stimulants.
Bottom Line: Your Resting Heart Rate Can Help You Build Fitness.
Your RHR can monitor just how well you're doing to keep your heart and cardiovascular system healthy. It's not new, but a new generation of smartwatches is bringing it into the dialogue around fitness. A tried-and-true method to measure overall fitness. There are easy ways to lower yours, through a more plant-based diet and daily exercise.
For more health-related content, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.